The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (PC(USA)) has more than 2 million members in more than 10,000 congregations. It is a Church which has been in existence longer as the United States itself (John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister from Scotland, was the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence). My first meeting in Washington DC- on Monday 11 June- was at the Washington office of the PC(USA). This is housed in an impressive building owned by the United Methodist Church, and which also houses a number of similar agencies from different denominations.
The building lies just across the road from the Capitol building, home of Congress, the ‘legislative branch’ of the government, which makes laws and sets budgets, so this is an important place for the Church to be. Also across the street is the Supreme Court building; just its position in the heart of an area dominated by such symbols of power makes the United Methodist building itself a powerful witness to the US churches’ concern for public affairs and social justice.
I was here to meet the Rev J Herbert Nelson, Director of Public Witness, for the PC (USA) (in the foreground, left). Rev Nelson was appointed in 2010, after 25 years in congregational ministry, most recently in a new church development at Liberation Community Presbyterian Church, a ministry with the urban poor of Memphis, Tennessee. On his appointment, it was noted that ‘Nelson recognizes that many Presbyterians, especially young people, have a keen interest in living out the values of their faith in ways that impact the public arena. Yet, they do not make the connection with the Presbyterian Church and its historic role in shaping public policy. His hope is to help individuals, networks and congregations work together as they seek to bear witness to Christ’s love and justice in ways that transform the world’. We were joined by one of three summer interns in the office, recent college graduate Daniel Williams.
Rev Nelson began by speaking about the importance of new connections which he has sought to make (making connections was to prove to be a major theme of our discussion). Historically, the Washington office was somewhat autonomous from the rest of the church. This was the nature of what they do- they know the DC issues, and try to interpret these to the rest of the Church. For example, sometimes a politician will call a midnight press conference in order to make the morning news. But often a big announcement like this actually means that nothing much is going to happen, but viewers (in the pews) don’t know that. So one aspect of the Washington office’s work is to help people interpret the news.
But there’s been a need to develop new relationships across PC(USA), and with ecumenical partners. An example are the Ecumenical Compassion, Peace and Justice Training Days, which bring people from different denominations to Washington- from across the USA and beyond- to learn about advocacy. There were some some 200 attendees at the latest annual meeting. It’s been important that other departments in the denomination know what the Washington office is up to, for they often are dealing with similar issues (e.g. disaster relief).
I explained that I had some questions which I plan to put to the people I’m meeting! Question 1 was the basic one: What is the purpose of your organisation? They’re there to advocate with Congress on the social justice policies agreed by the General Assembly (GA) of the PC(USA). This process has been going on for 66 years on issues such as race, healthcare, and immigration. It’s all done in partnership with ecumenical partners.
I asked J Herbert about the theological basis of his work? It’s in the tradition of the prophets, he told me: speaking the truth in love to power. It’s something we see in the preaching of Jesus. J Herbert told me he personally loves the Magnificat, the song of Mary in Luke 1. The Gospel is Good News to the poor- to people who are in any way impoverished. He told me that his work is about challenging the powers and principalities that cause structural injustice. But he was keen to point out that churches and Christians ought not to do for people what they can do for themselves; but we need to help those who cannot speak out, and empower them to do things for themselves.
I’m interested in how those persons and agencies working in this field maintain contact with local churches and Christians and/or their denominational sponsors? This is a major concern of Rev Nelson- hence the emphasis on connecting the work of the office better with others in the denomination. This is now much more intentional: there is a strategy which was lacking before to involve people more. There are within the church ‘enclaves’ of people who are interested in particular topics, for example, the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, or those interested in Sudan (including former or current missionaries). There are not formal church institutions, but networks of individuals within the Church. They need to be kept informed about what the DC office is doing about their topic. They can be trained on how to take action that alters things, learning best practice for advocacy at a local or national level. And they also provide what Rev Nelson calls a ‘ready bench’ (a sports metaphor) of people who can be called upon to aid the work of the DC office because they are specialists or interested in the topics before Congress.
We spoke about how institutional churches are hesitant about using new methods of communication to keep their membership informed. Particularly the younger generation communicate in new ways (Facebook, Twitter); but denominations are cautious about these new methods. Churches are used to producing long reports on topics; the internet encourages you to read a summary, and then you can click to ‘read more’ (just as on this blog!). So young people skim, and then follow the links to go deeper.
J Herbert explained that he uses Facebook for connecting to friends (past and present); to update on news about his friends; but also for getting out information about what he is doing in his work. Of course, this leads to issues for Church structures: Who can speak on behalf of the denomination? What if you are expressing a personal opinion? The new generation has new attitudes to these things- they’ll talk openly on the internet about issues their parents’ generation thought just shouldn’t be talked about. That’s often the attitude of denominational bodies!
I asked Rev Nelson what he thought his office had done in recent years which had been successful? Until recently, he told me, closing the office was under discussion. That idea is now off the table. The ecumenical advocacy days have been a great success. And there have been stronger relationships with the networks in the church, and with local churches. He now gets 350 emails a day!
His biggest disappointment has been the current Congress! They show arrogance of power, he said. The parties are divided on false notions of reality, which in fact carry no weight or authority. For the world as seen from Washington bears no relationship to the reality of people’s actual lives.
Yet still, through a very partisan media culture, the parties have got people thinking in categories in which all nuances have to fit. He told me a story of a neighbour he got to know, who was interested to find out that J Herbert was a pastor.
The neighbour described himself as a conservative evangelical Republican; and therefore against President Obama’s free healthcare system, for ideological reasons. This despite his recent history: his wife was hurt at work, and hospitalised. Despite the fact she can’t work, her employer, fearing a law suit, tried to get her back to work. They sent letters to her home (even although they knew she is in hospital). She had to call in everyday. When her sick leave limit was up (and although she was still unfit for work and in hospital) her days off were counted against her vacation entitlement. Eventually, when that ran out, she was fired because she didn’t turn up for work. Now, because she’s lost her job, she has no health insurance; and so the hospital pushed her out as soon as they could. She’s at home, unable to work, explained her husband, who is looking after the children. ‘So are you living off your health insurance’, asked Rev Nelson. No, explained the neighbour, for my employer had to let me go recently- he’s looking for work now, and therefore has no health insurance.
Why wouldn’t someone want free healthcare. Because, explained Rev Nelson, the conservative media has made him think that one day he can aspire to be wealthy- and when that happens, he doesn’t want to pay for other peoples’ healthcare! But he’s living out these values, as if he was already in that position (because he is a conservative evangelical Republican).
He also gave the example of a preacher well-known for his civil rights who faced the scorn of many people when he agreed to pray at a fundraiser for a Republican who was a candidate to be agriculture minister in his state. He explained that he had dealt with the candidate previously, and thought that the policies he was advocating would be good for small farmers, many of them black. But that was incomprehensible to those who couldn’t believe he was supporting a Republican!
It should be about the struggle for righteousness, and not party political affiliation and these strange categories (both) parties have created, says Rev Nelson. It seems that (especially the current) Congress cares more for corporations, not for people. His office’s role is to educate church members, helping them to understand what goes on in DC: what does what they see on their TV mean. Especially when it seems so disconnected from real life.
Yet if the policies are detached- it’s because people are detached. 80% of voters stay at home for many elections (except in the 2008 Presidential election, where there were already record turnouts among the early voters, i.e. those who could vote by post before Election Day). But now it’s back to normal- and there remains a need to ‘get the vote out’.
Many of these themes came up in discussion in the afternoon with Jennifer Butler of Faith in Public Life, which I’ll write about in my next post.
- Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly: introduction (peterstudyleave.wordpress.com)